CASTLEISLAND: Sculptor of the Ballyseedy Memorial: Yann-Renard Goulet

Credit: Photo by Frank O'Connor
Credit: Photo by Frank O'Connor


THIS year marks the 50th anniversary of the unveiling of the Ballyseedy memorial to the republicans of Kerry who gave their lives for their country and their ideals. The barbarity of what went on at — or close to — the site of the memorial is well documented. Sinn Féin members from around the county gathered there earlier this year to commemorate the anniversary of the unveiling of an amazing piece of work by any standards.

Writing in this year's Kerry Archaeological Magazine, Castleisland sculptor, Michael Kenny takes readers on an apolitical look at the work and he reveals details of the colourful life of its Breton creator, Yann Renard Goulet:

"Nowadays, roadside sculpture is a common enough feature of the Irish landscape, but in 1959 it was a rarity. That was the year that the Ballyseedy memorial to the republican dead of Kerry was unveiled. It was a remarkable achievement then, and to this day it is regarded as one of the most striking examples of bronze statuary in the country.

According to contemporary reports in The Kerryman newspaper, a crowd of "about 20,000 people", made its way from Denny Street, Tralee, to the monument site at Caherbreagh [1] about three miles away, accompanied by at least five pipe bands, and led by a colour party, uniformed Fianna and Cumman na mBan. Special trains had been laid on for the occasion from Limerick, Dublin and Cork and busloads of republican supporters came from all over Ireland. It was surely a spectacular sight in Ballymacelligott on Sunday, August 30, 1959.

The chairman of the organizing committee, John Joe Sheehy of Tralee [2], presided over the ceremony and the official unveiling was performed by Ms. Mai Daly of Knockane, Firies, whose brother Charlie was executed at Drumboe in 1922. The oration on behalf of the Republican Movement was given by Seán Ó Dubhda. Among those listening to the many speeches that day was the sculptor Yann Renard Goulet. His story is well worth telling.

Goulet was born in the port of St. Nazaire on the Loire estuary in 1914, where his parents had a hotel. (His father was a master chef who had worked in Maxims). They also had a summer residence at the nearby resort of Le Baule and it was there that Yann developed his lifelong passion for the sea.

At an early age also, he displayed a marked ability in painting and drawing and was a keen student of architecture, eventually winning a seven year scholarship to L'Ecole National Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris, where the prevailing ethos in sculpture was traditional and academic. One of his teachers was Charles Despiau [1874-1946], who himself had been assistant to Auguste Rodin, although he could never be described correctly as a disciple of his [3]. For that reason the link between Rodin and Ballyseedy is tenuous, but the shockwaves of Rodin's sculptural revolution of the late 19th century were felt by all who came within their orbit, and one could be forgiven for speculating that the modelling of the prone figure on the left of the Ballyseedy monument is somehow indebted to him.

Were Goulet not as passionately involved with the Breton national movement, both political and cultural, his career as a sculptor would certainly have taken a much different path. Little did he think as a student in Paris that he would end his days as a refugee in Ireland, albeit a successful and much respected one.

The unveiling of his monument to the youth of the French empire in Lille in 1939 signalled his emergence as an artist with a national profile in France, but it was also the year of the outbreak of the Second World War and all that that entailed. By then he was a prominent member of the Breton national party, and of the Breton artistic movement 'seiz breur'. This was also the year he went to Strasbourg to study the not-so-fine art of sabotage.

Early in the war he was fighting with the French national army and in June 1940 he was captured by German forces while trying to blow up a bridge on the Aisne. What happened while he was in captivity remains a cloudy subject , but the very next year in Paris he was elected leader of 'Bagadou Stourm', a Breton stormtrooper group with German associations. Any accurate account of the complexity of his existence during the war years is well beyond this writer: suffice it to say that at one time or another, he was a wanted man by the Gestapo, the Vichy government, and the French Resistance. A charmed existence, for sure. When the war was over he was sentenced to death 'in absentia' for collaboration with Germany.

In 1947, the diminutive but lionhearted YannRenard Goulet escaped from France with his wife, Vonig and two young children, Armelle and Herve and made their way, via Wales, to Ireland, with false identity papers, on the pretext of mounting an art exhibition . They had very little money, a change of clothes perhaps and a number of paintings. Initially they found refuge in the home of Mr. Oscar McCarthy Willis in Dalkey and later set up house in Bray [4]. Sculpture work was not to be found, so like others of his profession before him [Brancusi and Giacometti come to mind] he got a job locally making concrete blocks and later conducted art classes by night from his home. They soon became Irish citizens and their daughter Brigid was born in Ireland. Key: [1] The site for the Ballyseedy memorial was provided by Mr. Patrick Brick of Caherbreagh . [2] Other officers of the organising committee were; Jack Godley, Seán H. Ryan, Jimmy O'Loughlin, Mick Lynch, Dan Ryan, Dan Joe Conway, Sean Doyle, Mick O'Brien, Denis Fitzgerald, Jim Savage and Eamon Corkery. [3] The Despiau museum is in his hometown of Mont de Marsan in the Landes province of south-west France. [4] Irish Times, September 4, 1999